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Can babies understand numbers before they learn to count?

Mathematical intuition has already been demonstrated in very young infants. For example, just hours after birth, newborns have an early predisposition that allows them to associate an auditory number with a corresponding visual number (Izard et al. 2009). In this study, researchers tested babies’ understanding of digit names. Can babies associate “one,” “two,” and “three” with quantities even though they don’t know how to count?

Lisa Feigenson, a specialist in child number development, and Jenny Wang, both from Johns Hopkins University, observed 14 to 18-month old babies in a simple experiment. They showed the babies toys (small cars or dog figurines), which they then placed in an opaque box while either orally counting each element (“one, two, three, four: four dogs”) or saying only “this one and this one…”

The results of the study, published in Developmental Science, show that babies understand that numbers are associated with the notion of quantity. Indeed, when the objects weren’t clearly counted, the young participants didn’t seem terribly worried when they found only one toy in the box, as if they no longer remembered that there used to be three other objects. However, when the researcher counted the objects aloud, the babies remained on alert: they tried to look in the box and searched for the objects using their hands. Counting seems to have attracted the attention of the young experimental subjects. According to the authors: “They didn't remember the exact number but they did remember the approximate number.”

This research suggests that even though they are too young to understand (or articulate) numbers orally, by about 14 months, babies can interpret “one, two, three, four” by associating the words with a certain quantity. According to Lisa Feigenson: “Although they are years away from understanding the exact meanings of number words, babies are already in the business of recognizing that counting is about number. […] Research like ours shows that babies actually have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the world—they're already trying to make sense of what adults around them are saying, and that includes this domain of counting and numbers.”

The team is currently investigating whether early counting could have positive effects on the development of young children’s mathematical cognitive abilities.
Source: Jinjing (Jenny) Wang et Lisa Feigenson. “Infants recognize counting as numerically relevant”, in Developmental Science Oct. 2019 // Johns Hopkins University: Babies understand counting years earlier than believed, study finds: // Izard V., Sann C., Spelke ES, Streri A., “Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers”, in PNAS, June 2009


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